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Wolfgang Pauli

Wolfgang Ernst Pauli

Born25 April 1900(1900-04-25)
Vienna, Austria-Hungary
Died15 December 1958 (aged 58)
Zürich, Switzerland
ETH Zürich
Institute for Advanced Study
Alma materLudwig-Maximilians University
Academic advisor  Arnold Sommerfeld
Notable students  Nicholas Kemmer
Known forPauli exclusion principle
Notable prizes Nobel Prize in Physics (1945)

Wolfgang Ernst Pauli (April 25, 1900 – December 15, 1958) was an Austrian theoretical physicist noted for his work on the theory of spin, and in particular the discovery of the exclusion principle, which underpins the structure of matter, and (as such) the whole of chemistry.



Pauli was born in Vienna to Wolfgang Joseph Pauli and Berta Camilla Schütz. His middle name was given in honor of his godfather, the physicist Ernst Mach. Pauli's father, Wolfgang Pauli, Sr. (originally Wolf Pascheles), whose parents came from prominent Jewish families of Prague, converted from Judaism to Roman Catholicism shortly before his marriage in 1899. Bertha Schütz was raised in her mother's Roman Catholic religion, but her father was the Jewish writer Friedrich Schütz. Although Pauli was raised as a Roman Catholic, eventually he (and his parents) left the Church. [1]

Pauli attended the Döblinger-Gymnasium in Vienna, graduating with distinction in 1918. Only two months after graduation, the young prodigy had published his first paper, on Einstein's theory of general relativity. He attended the Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich, working under Sommerfeld, where he received his doctorate in July 1921 for a thesis on the quantum theory of ionised molecular hydrogen.

Sommerfeld asked Pauli to review the theory of relativity for the Encyklopaedie der mathematischen Wissenschaften ("Encyclopedia of Mathematical Sciences"), a German encyclopedia. Two months after receiving his doctorate, Pauli completed the article, which came to 237 pages. It was praised by Einstein; published as a monograph, it remains a standard reference on the subject to this day.

He spent a year at the University of Göttingen as the assistant to Max Born, and the following year at what became the Niels Bohr Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen. He then spent 1923 to 1928 as a lecturer at the University of Hamburg. During this period, Pauli was instrumental in the development of the modern theory of quantum mechanics. In particular, he formulated the exclusion principle and the theory of nonrelativistic spin. (See below for a list of his scientific contributions.)

In May 1929, Pauli left the Roman Catholic Church; in December that year, he married Käthe Margarethe Deppner. The marriage was an unhappy one, ending in divorce in 1930 after less than a year.

At the beginning of 1931, shortly after his divorce and immediately following his postulation of the neutrino, Pauli had a severe breakdown. He consulted the psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Jung who, like Pauli, lived near Zurich. Jung immediately began to interpret his deeply archetypal dreams and Pauli became one of the depth psychologist’s best students. Soon, he began to scientifically criticize the epistemology of Jung’s theory and this contributed to a certain clarification of the latter’s thoughts, especially about the concept of synchronicity. A great deal of these discussions is documented in the Pauli/Jung letters, today published as “Atom and Archetype”. Jung's elaborate analysis of more than 400 of Pauli's dreams is documented in “Psychology and Alchemy” (see below).

In 1928, he was appointed Professor of Theoretical Physics at the ETH Zurich in Switzerland where he made significant scientific progress. He held visiting professorships at the University of Michigan in 1931, and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 1935. He was awarded the Lorentz Medal in 1931.

In 1934, he married Franciska Bertram. This marriage would last for the rest of his life. They had no children.

The German annexation of Austria in 1938 made him a German national, which became a difficulty with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Pauli moved to the United States in 1940, where he was Professor of Theoretical Physics at Princeton. After the end of the war, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1946 before returning to Zurich, where he mostly remained for the rest of his life.

Also in 1945, he received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his "decisive contribution through his discovery in 1925 of a new law of Nature, the exclusion principle or Pauli principle." He had been nominated for the prize by Einstein.

In 1958, Pauli was awarded the Max Planck medal. In that same year, he fell ill with pancreatic cancer. When his last assistant, Charles Enz, visited him at the Rotkreuz hospital in Zurich, Pauli asked him: “Did you see the room number?” It was number 137. Throughout his life, Pauli had been preoccupied with the question of why the fine structure constant, a dimensionless fundamental constant, has a value nearly equal to 1/137. Pauli died in that room on December 15, 1958.

Scientific career

Pauli made many important contributions in his career as a physicist, primarily in the subject of quantum mechanics. He seldom published papers, preferring lengthy correspondences with colleagues (such as Bohr and Heisenberg, with whom he had close friendships.) Many of his ideas and results were never published and appeared only in his letters, which were often copied and circulated by their recipients. Pauli was apparently unconcerned that much of his work thus went uncredited. The following are the most important results for which he has been credited:

In 1924, Pauli proposed a new quantum degree of freedom (or quantum number) with two possible values, in order to resolve inconsistencies between observed molecular spectra and the developing theory of quantum mechanics. He formulated the Pauli exclusion principle, perhaps his most important work, which stated that no two electrons could exist in the same quantum state, identified by four quantum numbers including his new two-valued degree of freedom. The idea of spin had originated with Ralph Kronig. Uhlenbeck and Goudsmit one year later identified Pauli's new degree of freedom as electron spin.

In 1926, shortly after Heisenberg published the matrix theory of modern quantum mechanics, Pauli used it to derive the observed spectrum of the hydrogen atom. This result was important in securing credibility for Heisenberg's theory.

In 1927, he introduced the 2x2 Pauli matrices as a basis of spin operators, thus solving the nonrelativistic theory of spin. This work is sometimes said to have influenced Dirac in his discovery of the Dirac equation for the relativistic electron, though Dirac stated that he invented these same matrices himself independently at the time, without Pauli's influence. Dirac invented similar but larger (4x4) spin matrices for use in his relativistic treatment of fermionic spin.

In 1930, Pauli considered the problem of beta decay. In a letter of Dec 4 beginning "Dear radioactive ladies and gentlemen" (to Lise Meitner et al.), he proposed the existence of a hitherto unobserved neutral particle with a small mass (no greater than 1% the mass of a proton), in order to explain the continuous spectrum of beta decay. In 1934, Fermi incorporated the particle, which he called a neutrino, into his theory of beta decay. The neutrino was first confirmed experimentally in 1956 by Frederick Reines and Clyde Cowan, two and a half years before Pauli's death. On receiving the news, he replied by telegram: "Thanks for message. Everything comes to him who knows how to wait. Pauli"[2]

In 1940, he proved the spin-statistics theorem, a critical result of quantum field theory which states that particles with half-integer spin are fermions, while particles with integer spin are bosons.

In 1949, he published a paper on Pauli-Villars regularization, which provides an important prescription for renormalization, or removing infinities from quantum field theories.

Pauli made repeated criticisms of modern synthesis of evolutionary biology[3][4], and his contemporary admirers point to modes of epigenetic inheritance as supportive of his arguments[5].

Personality and reputation

The Pauli effect was named after his bizarre ability to break experimental equipment simply by being in the vicinity. Pauli himself was aware of his reputation, and delighted whenever the Pauli effect manifested.

Regarding physics, Pauli was famously perfectionist. This extended not just to his own work, but also to the work of his colleagues. As a result, he became known within the physics community as the "conscience of physics", the critic to whom his colleagues were accountable. He could be scathing in his dismissal of any theory he found lacking, often labelling it ganz falsch, utterly false.

However, this was not his most severe criticism, which he reserved for theories or theses so unclearly presented as to be untestable or unevaluatable, and thus not properly belonging within the realm of science, even though posing as such. They were worse than wrong because they could not be proven wrong. Famously, he once said of such an unclear paper: "It is not even wrong."

An incident reported to have occurred[citation needed] with another leading physicist of the time, Paul Ehrenfest, illustrates this notion of an arrogant Pauli. The two met at a conference for the first time. Ehrenfest, though never having met Pauli, was familiar with his papers, and was quite impressed with them. After a few minutes of conversation, Ehrenfest remarked "I think I like your papers better than you", to which Pauli shot back "I think I like you better than your papers". The two became very good friends from then on.

A well-known joke about Pauli in the physics community goes as follows: After his death, Pauli was granted an audience with God. Pauli asked God why the fine structure constant has the value 1/(137.036...). God nodded, went to a blackboard, and began scribbling equations at a furious pace. Pauli watched Him at first with great satisfaction, but soon began shaking his head violently: "Das ist ganz falsch!"

A somewhat warmer picture emerges from this story which appears in the article on Dirac:

"Werner Heisenberg [in Physics and Beyond, 1971] recollects a friendly conversation among young participants at the 1927 Solvay Conference about Einstein and Planck's views on religion. Wolfgang Pauli, Heisenberg and Dirac took part in it. Dirac's contribution was a poignant and clear criticism of the political manipulation of religion, that was much appreciated for its lucidity by Bohr, when Heisenberg reported it to him later. Among other things, Dirac said: "I cannot understand why we idle discussing religion. If we are honest - and as scientists honesty is our precise duty - we cannot help but admit that any religion is a pack of false statements, deprived of any real foundation. The very idea of God is a product of human imagination. [...] I do not recognize any religious myth, at least because they contradict one another. [...]" Heisenberg's view was tolerant. Pauli had kept silent, after some initial remarks, but when finally he was asked for his opinion, jokingly he said: "Well, I'd say that also our friend Dirac has got a religion and the first commandment of this religion is 'God does not exist and Paul Dirac is his prophet.'" Everybody burst into laughter, including Dirac.


  1. ^ Jewish Physicists.
  2. ^ "Wolfgang Pauli, A Biographical Inroduction by Charles Enz, in W.Pauli, "Writings on Physics and Philosophy", edited by Charles P. Enz and Karl von Meyenn, Springer-Verlag (1994)
  3. ^ Pauli, W. (1954) Naturwissenschaftliche und erkenntnistheoretische Aspekte der Ideen vom Unbewussten. Dialectica 8, 283–301
  4. ^ Atmanspacher, H. and Primas, H. (2006) Pauli’s ideas on mind and matter in the context of contemporary science. Journal of Consciousness Studies 13(3), 5-50.
  5. ^ Conference on Wolfgang Pauli's Philosophical Ideas and Contemporary Science organised by ETH May 20 - 25, 2007. The abstract of a paper discussing this by Richard Jorgensen is here


Books by Pauli

  • Pauli, W.; C.G. Jung (1955). The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche. Random House. 
  • Pauli, Wolfgang (1981). Theory of Relativity. New York: Dover. ISBN 0-486-64152-X. 
  • Pauli, W.; C.G. Jung (2001). in ed. C.A. Meier: Atom and Archetype, The Pauli/Jung Letters, 1932-1958. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton Univ. Press. 

Books about Pauli

  • Enz, Charles P. (2002). No Time to be Brief, A scientific biography of Wolfgang Pauli. Oxford Univ. Press. 
  • Enz, Charles P. (1995). "Rationales und Irrationales im Leben Wolfgang Paulis", in ed. H. Atmanspacher, et al: Der Pauli-Jung-Dialog. Berlin: Springer-Verlag. 
  • Gieser, Suzanne (2005). The Innermost Kernel. Depth Psychology and Quantum Physics. Wolfgang Pauli's Dialogue with C.G. Jung. Springer Verlag. 
  • Jung, C.G. (1980). Psychology and Alchemy. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton Univ. Press. 
  • Keve, Tom (2000). Triad: the physicists, the analysts, the kabbalists. London: Rosenberger & Krausz.  (historical fiction)
  • Lindorff, David (1994). Pauli and Jung: The Meeting of Two Great Minds. Quest Books. 
  • Pais, Abraham (2000). The Genius of Science. Oxford: Oxford Press. 
  • Enz, P., and von Meyenn, Karl, editors, Wolfgang Pauli - Writings on physics and philosophy, translated by Robert Schlapp (Springer Verlag, Berlin, 1994). ISBN 354-05685-9X, ISBN 978-354-05685-99.
  • Laurikainen, K. V. "Beyond the Atom-- The Philosophical Thought of Wolfgang Pauli" (Springer-Verlag, Berlin 1985) ISBN 3-540-19456-8, ISBN 0-387-19456-8.

Relevant Books

  • H. B. G. Casimir, Haphazard Reality: half a century of science (Harper & Row, New York, 1983). ISBN 0-060-15028-9
  • H. B. G. Casimir, Het toeval van de werkelijkheid: Een halve eeuw natuurkunde (Meulenhof, Amsterdam, 1992). ISBN 9-029-09709-4

See also

  • List of Austrian scientists
  • List of Swiss
  • Ralph Kronig Correspondence with Pauli
  • Pauli exclusion principle
  • Pauli effect

NAME Pauli, Wolfgang Ernst
SHORT DESCRIPTION Theoretical physicist
DATE OF BIRTH 25 April 1900
PLACE OF BIRTH Vienna, Austria-Hungary
DATE OF DEATH 15 December 1958
PLACE OF DEATH Zürich, Switzerland
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Wolfgang_Pauli". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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